Free Speech or Illegal Threats? Justices Could Say

Messages posted on Facebook and Twitter or sent in emails can be tasteless, vulgar and even disturbing. But just when do they cross the line from free speech to threats that can be punished as a crime?

As the Internet and social networks allow people to vent their frustrations with the click of a mouse, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to clarify the First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language on electronic media where the speaker's intent is not always clear. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom f speech and other basic rights.

The justices could decide as early as Monday whether to hear appeals in two cases where defendants were convicted and sent to jail for making illegal threats, despite their claims that they never meant any harm.

In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing "the most heinous school shooting ever imagined."

The other case involves a Florida woman who emailed a conservative radio talk show host about "second amendment gun rights" and said she was planning "something big" at a Broward County government building or school. The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.

"I'm going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about," the email said. Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than a quarter-million students.

In both cases, the defendants were prosecuted under a federal statute that makes it a crime to transmit a "threat to injure the person of another." Those laws apply only to "true threats" that are not protected by the First Amendment under a doctrine established by the...

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